Cult Nightmares in Wax! (Part One)

*contains spoilers

WANTED – An imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition.

So begins Paul Leni’s (1885-1929 blood poisoning, infected tooth) silent film from 1924 entitled Waxworks.

The Man Who Laughs

Waxworks kicked off the Nightmares in Wax craze and it was one of the first horror anthologies. It’s really not that horrible. The first was another German silent called Eerie Tales from 1919. Both are on Youtube. Waxworks tells of a writer invited to write stories about wax figures in a wax sideshow exhibit. Why the owner of the waxworks wants this I don’t know. Three segments remain, the fourth dropped by financial restrictions. The final, very short segment, is considered the best as it concerns the waxwork of Jack the Ripper coming to life and terrorizing those in the museum. There are no wax figures in the movie as they are motionless actors.

Director Leni’s early death robbed us of his version of Dracula (1931), perhaps with Conrad Veidt (1893-1943 heart attack, on golf course), instead of the Tod Browning (1880-1962 undisclosed) directed Bela Lugosi version. Leni did however leave us the 1927 Universal studios silent The Cat and the Canary, one of the best old dark house tales of the era which brought German Expressionism to Hollywood. It should also be noted that Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928) with its character who has a large smile forever cut by a blade into his face, was used to great effect as a key element in Brian de Palma’s (1940-) underrated (upon another viewing) The Black Dahlia (2006). A similar “smile” was cut into the face of the real “Black Dahlia” victim Elizabeth Short (1924-47).

Doctor X (1932) trailer

The next movie of note that deals in wax is the Hollywood Warner Brothers’ film Doctor X (1932). The movie is mentioned in the Rocky Horror Picture Show song Science Fiction: “Doctor X will build a creature…” Surprisingly for such an early movie, it is in color and stars the original “Scream Queen” Fay Wray (1907-2004 natural causes) from King Kong (1933). Of course Jamie Lee Curtis inherited the title Scream Queen when she appeared in a number of horror movies kicking off with Halloween in 1978. Wray is also mentioned in the Science Fiction song as well as during the “floorshow” in Rocky Horror when Frank’n’Furter asks: ”Whatever Happened to Fay Wray?…”

Science Fiction/Double Feature song

As for Doctor X, with its institute of specialist doctors, one of which is a killer… it mentions prostitution while cannibalism is one of its main themes. The wax connection is a collection of wax figures representing murdered victims. Furthermore, the “synthetic flesh”, which is another key element, is a kind of melted wax-like substance. I won’t give too much away as it is still worth a look for its quaint perversity and a couple of tense scenes.

Fay Wray screams

Then the following year, after the success of Doctor X, came Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), also in color. The expensive color process, used in both movies, was shelved by Warner Brothers, and not surprisingly, as the color is not very good. Technicolor had nailed the process by Gone with the Wind (1939).

The film was a much bigger hit for Warner Brothers than Doctor X. The studio used much of the same cast and crew from Doctor X, including director Michael Curtiz (1886-1962 cancer) who went on to do Casablanca (1942). The incredible sets on both movies were by Polish art director Anton Grot (1884-1984 natural causes). He won five Oscars during his career, including for the previous year’s mild horror Svengali (1931) starring John Barrymore (1882-1942 heart attack, alcoholism) in a very intense staring performance.

As for “Mystery”, the element of a horribly disfigured face covered by a wax mask was borrowed from Lon Chaney Sr’s (1883-1930 throat cancer) character in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which was based on a novel from 1910.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum poster

In Doctor X the mask is used in reverse to make the murderer appear horrible.

Also, like Doctor X, there is a tiresome subplot in Mystery with a wisecracking journalist. But it is the storyline about a vengeful wax museum owner who encases his victims in wax to put on display in his museum, which is the classic part of the narrative. Glenda Farrell (1904-71 lung cancer) has replaced Lee Tracy (1898-1968 liver cancer) as the plucky reporter in the subplot.

Whereas Doctor X was based on a published play, “Mystery” was based on an unpublished short story entitled The Wax Works by Charles S Beldon (1904-54 no info), who also wrote an unproduced play on the subject.

With characters that include murderers, drug addicts and bootleggers, it’s obviously a Pre-code movie and despite its comedy relief still retains its classic status, although both Doctor X and “Mystery” haven’t received enough attention to warrant a thorough preservation and release on disc.

Title card

The 1936 British film Midnight at Madame Tussauds is hard to catch up with. It’s about a famous explorer who wagers he can stay the night in the Chamber of Horrors of the world famous Madame Tussauds wax museum. Using actual location work, one latter-day British critic said the film is dated but has an “eerie atmosphere” with its murderer on the loose in the actual museum. I did finally watch it, and it’s true the wax museum finale is rather good as well as the opening tour of the museum, but there is a plot in the middle without the museum appearing at all which is totally uninteresting and undermines the rest of the movie.

I have seen Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940) about ten times. It is one of my favourite Sidney Toler (1874-1947 intestinal cancer) Chan films and I have seen all of them (there are near 40) a few times each – except for the few that are lost due to film library fires in the 1950s. Got nothing better to do!

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940) trailer *NO SOUND AT BEGINNING

Anyway, Toler’s “Wax Museum” is a tight and atmospheric murder mystery running just over sixty minutes. Set almost entirely in the wax museum, it is one of the top five Chan films of all time, and the comedy relief by Number Two son Sen Yung (1915-80 asphyxiation, gas leak in apartment) is welcome rather than tiresome. The wax figures are quite life-like, especially the one of Chan himself. The original screenplay, rather than being based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ (1884-1933 heart attack) Chan novels, was by Chan regular John Larkin (1901-65 no info).

The Frozen Ghost poster

Then there is The Frozen Ghost (1945), which is the fourth of six Univeral low-budget “Inner Sanctum” mystery movies. Those movies were based on a series of books published by Simon and Schuster and all starred Lon Chaney Jr (1906-73 throat and lung cancer). Set partially in Madame Monet’s Wax Museum where its owner is murdered, it is Martin Kosleck’s (1904-94 complications of abdominal surgery) performance as the museum curator who talks to the figures as if they were alive, which gives the film a lift. All the Inner Sanctum mysteries are watchable today and are well made although not terribly memorable. Again the wax figures in the movie are just exhibits like in the Chan movie and are not humans encased in wax.

Then of course is the remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum – the well known and considered a classic – House of Wax (1953). What can I say? Vincent Price is perfect as the disfigured owner of the museum where some of the figures are of course really people dipped in wax. It’s a classic and if you’re a serious horror history buff see it. My father still remembers it scaring him as a kid.

Santo in the Wax Museum poster

Jump to 1961 and we have Samson in the Wax Museum. No, it is not an Italian muscleman movie but one of the Mexican series of wrestler movies featuring masked actor El Santo (1917-84 heart attack). In fact its real title is Santo in the Wax Museum or Santo en el museo de cera. Santo, or The Saint, or The Saintly One is a legend in Mexico, and he appeared in over fifty movies. His wax museum movie appeared around the time of his greatest success in film and with its script, crisp b/w photography and even good wrestling scenes is considered one of the best Santo entries. The wax museum in this film serves as a cover for an underground hideout for a mad scientist creating monsters a la Island of Lost Souls (1932). They really are wax dummies in the movie. I’ve seen a poor American International television print and the movie is reasonable. There is a bubbling bathtub of wax in the climax.

Chamber of Horrors (1966) teaser trailer

Then there is Chamber of Horrors (1965) which is a television movie directed by Hy Averback (1920-97 undisclosed) deemed too violent for network airings. It was a pilot for a proposed series called House of Wax, which features a couple of amateur sleuths who work in a wax museum. I imagine the series would have followed these characters. The best part of the movie is Patrick O’Neal’s (1927-94 cancer and tuberculosis) performance as a deranged killer who cuts off his hand to escape handcuffs. He then attaches knives et cetera to the missing appendage to murder. His name is “Jason” and probably the first major horror character to use that name. Any movie that begins with someone marrying a corpse bride can’t be all bad… and it’s in color! No gore. It’s no coincidence that Jason in Chamber of Horrors looks like Vincent Price in House of Wax and the ending is probably the ultimate in wax museum climaxes as the villain is impaled on his own wax figure! Pieces (1982) might have got its cue from the human jigsaw puzzle in the plot. There is also a fleeting appearance by Berry Kroeger (1912-91 kidney failure) who plays the key role of Max Black in the next film…

Enter Nightmare in Wax (1969), which I have a certain soft spot for after repeated viewings. I dismissed it at first as flat and lacking any flair at all. But this drive-in movie that I thought belonged to the netherworld of indifferent movies, actually belongs to a netherworld of its own.

Nightmare in Was (1969) movie

The opening credit to the original exploitation release print screams: “RKO Pictures Presents” but it has no official connection with any RKO production company and the film is really a production of Paragon International Pictures (they made a trio of films in the 60s that’s all), which is the same name of the studio portrayed in the movie – Paragon Studios – which gives the movie added depth. The Crown International official release has the boring Crown logo credits and dispenses with “RKO…” which usually automatically tells us it’s going to be a lousy picture!

Nightmare in Wax was written and executive produced by Rex Carlton (1915-68 suicide, gunshot to the head), who killed himself after being unable to reimburse borrowed money because of bad investments – one was Nightmare in Wax!

Blood of Dracula’s Castle lobby card

From what I can gather from interviews, Nightmare in Wax was the last of the Paragon Pictures to be produced. Money was short and investors were offered a deal by Paramount to buy the pictures after completion. When investors met to discuss the deal, producer Martin B Cohen (1923-2007 no info) killed the deal by saying they could get a better one. Meanwhile the lab hadn’t been paid for processing and whoever paid it first got two of the Paragon Pictures – Blood of Dracula’s Castle and Nightmare in Wax. Someone beat the producers and foreclosed on the two pictures at the lab and everyone with a stake lost out – including Carlton. When Carlton heard the news, and it was rumoured he owed money to the mob, rather than be killed by them, he rented a Hollywood hotel room, got drunk and sat in the bathtub to blow his brains out. The only producer on Nightmare in Wax who would work again from the fiasco would be Cohen, who produced and co-wrote the story on Humanoids from the Deep much later in 1980.

The Paragon International Pictures were apparently shot in 1967 and not released until 1969 when Crown got a hold of the pair of them and made a tidy sum. The third Paragon Picture was the crummy biker movie The Rebel Rousers starring among others, Jack Nicholson as “Bunny” and Bruce Dern – Cameron Mitchell (1918-94 lung cancer) was in it too. Al Adamson’s (1929-95 murdered) Satan’s Sadists (1969) was much more entertaining!

The Rebel Rousers (1970) trailer

Paragon International Pictures was especially created for the three movies and Carlton got posthumous executive producer credit for them all.  Carlton also wrote Blood of Dracula’s Castle – which is pretty ordinary compared to Nightmare in Wax – directed by Adamson, who thought some of the ideas original enough to rip-off for his Brain of Blood (1971), which is the “better” movie.

We will discuss the artistic merits of Nightmare in Wax and the remake of House of Wax featuring Paris Hilton in Part Two

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